Racism Against Native Americans May Be Embedded in Your Business

Honoring Native communities begins with your words and your actions.

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans. It is also the ideal time to audit your communications for bias against Native communities.

Discrimination can live in our words and actions, and as marketers, we are obligated to stop it. 

Almost 9 million people in the United States identify as Native American or Alaska Native. This is just under 3% of the population and as a result, Native communities are often ignored as a demographic target.

However, population size is not an indicator of importance or impact, and marketers have the responsibility to learn how to acknowledge and correctly refer to Native communities.

A best practice is to be as specific as possible. You can start by understanding these terms: 

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    Indigenous: defined as “the earliest known inhabitants of a place,” this term refers to indigenous people on any continent.

  • Native: This term is often used to describe indigenous peoples from the United States (Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives). 

  • Native American:refers exclusively to indigenous people in the United States.When possible, be as specific as you can and mention the tribe an individual belongs to, such as Cherokee, Lakota or Sioux. 

  • American Indian: typicallyused for legal purposes and in the U.S. Census.

  • Indian: a term given to Indigenous communities by colonizers who mistakenly believed they had landed in India. 

Members of Native communities may prefer any or all of these names, and it is key that marketers follow their example.

The opinions and voices of Native people have been erased rather than protected for far too long — and the vernacular of their culture should not be co-opted for conversational (mis)use. 

You’re Not Having a Powwow

Words with origins in Native vernacular are often misused by people and marketers alike. Casual use of these terms makes light of Native culture and fails to show respect for Native traditions and history.

  • Powwow: Powwows are gatherings among Native communities that may be private or public and can include socialization and dancing. However, this term is often used by non-Native people to describe all kinds of gatherings, including meetings in corporate environments.

  • Spirit animal: Animals play an important symbolic role in the cultural lives of Indigenous people, and this term tends to refer to a spirit that acts as a guide or protector. However, non-Native people casually appropriate the term to describe someone or something that they relate to.  

  • Off the reservation:This phrase describes a person who has gone rogue, but it originates in a time when Native Americans were restricted to reservations and their movements were monitored by the federal government.

Media Is Rife With Stereotypes

Representation of people from Native communities in American media has often fallen short. For decades, movies cast white actors in roles depicting Native people, solely featured historical storylines and perpetuated the white savior complex — narratives where a white person plays a pivotal role in saving a disempowered Native counterpart.

Advertising has not done much better: 

  • Iron Eyes Cody: Launched by Keep America Beautiful on Earth Day 1971, this infamous ad featured an ostensibly Native actor named Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear after witnessing pollution and is credited with ushering in a new Green Age. The actor was actually Espera Oscar DeCorti, an Italian-American, who donned a wig and darkened his complexion with makeup.

  • Dior: Dior’s highly criticized 2019 perfume ad is littered with Native American tropes for a product named “Sauvage,” which translates to “wild” or “savage” in English.    

  • Diesel: A 2010 ad that was part of a Cannes Grand Prix-winning campaign resurfaced in 2022 and drove a negative public reaction, proving low cultural competence and tolerance of appropriation across creative industries.  

We have recently seen prominent brands pressured to address discrimination against Native communities, with the recently renamed Washington Commanders being a prime example.

Public criticism of the team’s previous racist name is familiar to most, but the brand’s renaming effort by agency Code was the result of hundreds of interviews, with a special focus on the contributions of leaders and members of Native communities. 

This example highlights the power of elevating Native voices — a best practice that should be adopted by any brand aiming to drive Native representation, and should always be supported by fair compensation. 

Finally, brands should seek to understand how they can best serve needs and help address challenges faced by Native communities. The following influencers and organizations speak authentically about a range of intersectional issues and are great resources for firsthand understanding of Native points of view: 

  • Allie Redhorse Young: Citizen of the Navajo Nation who encourages Native communities to exercise their vote and speak out on issues, including land and water rights, education, healthcare and missing Indigenous women.

  • Sharice Davids: Member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Her platform focuses on access to healthcare, renewable energy and education equity. 

  • Charlie Amáyá Scott: A Navajo Nation citizen and transgender influencer, scholar and advocate who highlights issues affecting the queer Indigenous community, including anti-queerness rooted in the violence of settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy. 

Marketers’ Actions Have a Broad Impact

As marketers aim to be more inclusive of Indigenous communities, they should remember the following best practices:         

  • Follow the leader. The language we use to describe Native communities should align with how they describe themselves. Pay attention to how a member of a Native community spells and pronounces their name, and if they mention a tribe as their identifier, be sure to include that in their descriptor. 

  • Expand representation. When including members of Native communities in content, do not limit representation to historical narratives or stories of oppression. Native communities still exist and deserve to be represented accurately within modern context. 

  • Elevate Native voices. Marketers can better serve their brands if they are constantly learning, and Native people are the best source. Whenever possible, brands should pass the mic to Native people to tell their own stories, in their voices and from their perspectives. 

Native and indigenous people have endured generations of inequality and deserve to be honored and respected by people and brands alike. Inclusion is a moral responsibility that allows us to over-serve Native communities, and it also presents a tremendous opportunity for brand growth. According to McKinsey, inclusive brands are 35% more likely to outperform their competitors and can model a more equitable world while increasing their resiliency and thoughtfully reaching more consumers.

What brand doesn’t want that?

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